Image: Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Sarah Ricard Orza and principal dancer Lindsi Dec in Benjamin Millepied’s 3 Movements.
As Artistic Director Peter Boal points out in his notes to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s audience, we have the royal court of France — specifically of Louis XIV — to thank for the popularity of ballet today. Since its inception, the elegant and technical dance style has taken many forms in the hands of the various choreographers who employ it. The choreography of George Balanchine and Benjamin Millepied is showcased on stage during Pacific Northwest Ballet’s opening performance. They come from two different eras of ballet, but its roots are nevertheless present in their work.
Benjamin Millepied may be a familiar name to broader audiences from his work on films like Black Swan, but even before he appeared on the silver screen, he was dancing and choreographing for such distinguished companies as Paris Opera Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and — of course — Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB).
Millepied’s first piece of the evening, 3 Movements, returns to PNB after its premiere in 2008 with a new cast of dancers all in shades of black, white and gray. The staccato notes of Steve Reich’s canonical, monotonous composition pulse behind the dancers as they move in small groups and solos back and forth across McCaw Hall’s stage, often partnering one another in circular lifts, flirtatious duets, and frantic petit allegros. As the music crescendos the choreography builds upon itself, dancers leaping higher and turning faster, until it all comes to a crashing halt with the group’s mad-dash to break through the background of the stage. The climactic ending also breaks the trance the audience finds themselves in, as Millepied’s contemporary phrasing paired with the repetitive orchestration makes for a mesmerizing performance from which it is difficult to look away.
The second Millepied feature, Appassionata, made its debut last year at the Paris Opera Ballet under the name La nuit s’achève or “The night ends.” This smaller-scale production, set with only six dancers, feels more daring and more emotional than the first, and is an apt demonstration of how Millepied’s work has grown in depth as his illustrious career has taken off.
Appassionata’s three couples start the piece in rich-colored costuming and romantic partner work, set to a solo piano sonata composed by Beethoven and expertly played by Allan Dameron. There are brief moments of confusion between the pairs — the dancers pausing to exchange questioning glances as if they aren’t sure who they are supposed to be dancing with — before joining each other in stirring duets that constantly exchange characters.
The dancers trade in their colorful ensembles for neutrals in part two, which is the movement that steals the show. Principals Elizabeth Murphy and Karel Cruz take the stage in flowing white clothing, and the theatre is silent as they stare at one another. Rather than tension, their focus holds pure curiosity. The piano begins again, the couple swaying towards each other, and in contrast to the sensuality of the first dance, innocence and vulnerability drive their movement.
Slow, major chords, reminiscent of a church hymn, sound out alongside the couple as what can only be called a love story plays out. Their dancing is joyful and exploratory, and we watch them grow closer until finally, their duet ends with a passionate-yet-innocent kiss.
The sonata continues as the lovers exit, the other two couples rushing the stage in gray and black. They leap and run — their relationship clearly more turbulent than what we’ve just witnessed — and soon the innocent young couple is drawn into the chaos. As the original title of the piece reminds us, their perfect night must end.
Opening night closes with George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, a classic feature of the technically complicated and challenging choreography he is known for. The time-honored precision of French ballet is on full display thanks to the mastery of PNB’s cast and the piece is a bright, refreshing finale to a remarkable showcase. If Tricolore is any indication, this season promises to be a triumphant one for Pacific Northwest Ballet.
I must also take a moment to congratulate the three dancers promoted this weekend: Ben Griffiths to Principal, and Angelica Generosa and Matthew Renko to Soloist.
Tricolore runs through October 2, 2016. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.